The Right Way to Fire an Employee

September 22, 2017

There's a right way to let an employee go, and it comes down to less being more.

Firing someone.

It’s one of the worst experiences in the business world. For most managers, it’s the last thing they want to do, and obviously not much fun for the employee.

But here’s the reality: sometimes, firing someone is absolutely the right thing to do for the organization, your team and even the employee. If a situation isn’t working out and there’s no improvement on the horizon, the most compassionate action you can take is letting the person go, so they can find something that’s a better fit.

That said, you owe it to the person to let them go with decency and respect. This article won’t touch on the entire termination process – LinkedIn Learning Instructor Todd Dewett covers that fully in his course, Letting an Employee Go. Instead, it will cover only the last conversation you’ll have with the employee.

So, what should you say in that conversation? When firing someone, your conversation needs to cover three things, and only these three things, Dewett said:

  • Deliver

This means delivering the message that the decision has been made to let them go, information about health and compensation, any job-search assistance that might be available and the procedures for gathering personal belongings, returning company property and actually leaving the workplace. And that's it. 

If they ask why they were fired, tell them it’s based on their performance (which should have been already discussed several times) and move on.

  • Confirm

When firing someone, it’s likely the person could get emotional and lose focus. Confirm that the person understands they are being let go, the decision is final and they understand all relevant HR information (i.e. when they need to leave, their final paycheck, etc.).

  • Answer (procedural-only) questions

You should allow time for the person to ask questions, but only on the actual termination process itself: their last paycheck, when their health insurance runs out, etc.

If they ask a question about why they are fired or about their customers or anything else, redirect. Just say they are being let go for performance reasons, their customers will be taken care of and move on.

Also, remember this throughout: when actually firing someone, stay calm, concise and unemotional.

The 5 things you shouldn’t do in a termination conversation

Despite the advice above, many managers say more than they should when firing an employee. While tempting and seemingly compassionate, that actually makes the experience worse for the employee.

What are the things you shouldn’t do when firing someone? Dewett said there are five don’ts:

1. Don’t give employees false hope.

Don’t tell an employee it’ll be alright, you’ll help them find a job or something along those lines. Your job here is to give them the information and move on.

“This is not about being cold, it's about being honest because you don't know what their future holds,” Dewett said. “And that will be for them to determine.”

2. Don’t be overly empathetic.

Again, when firing someone you shouldn’t be emotional, even if that emotion is empathy. Oftentimes, this will just inflame emotions and make the situation worse, not better.

Plus, this could also send the message the decision isn’t final.

3. Don’t pass the buck.

You made the decision to fire the person, you need to stand behind that decision. Don't blame the firing on someone else or organizational performance.

“In the long term, the more honest you are, believe it or not, the more they'll respect your decision,” Dewett said.

4. Don’t debate with the employee.

When firing someone, the person is likely to question why or want to bargin their way out of it.

You need to avoid these traps and stay on point. If they ask why, just say it was because of their performance and it’s already been discussed many times (which it should have been, if handled correctly). All debating does is enflame the situation and could send the message the decision isn’t final.

5. Don’t offer advice.

If you are firing someone, you obviously think there are some areas they could use improvement in. This isn’t the time to point those areas out.

“Discussing any of those factors is unnecessary at this point and can be viewed as demeaning,” Dewett said.

The dye's been cast, the time for development plans is over. Frankly, one benefit to the person being fired is they don’t have to deal with your advice anymore.

The takeaway

There’s probably a more articulate way to say this, but firing someone sucks. Like, really, really sucks. And it sucks for the employee even more.  

But there’s no reason it has to suck worse by having a poorly handled or dramatic termination conversation. This isn’t the time to debate or argue or anything other than to let the person know they’ve been fired and what this means to them, from a practical standpoint.

So really, if you remember nothing else in this article, remember this one lesson when having the actual firing conversation: less is more.   

*Image from Up in the Air, IMDB

Todd Dewett has taught more than 30 courses for LinkedIn Learning on leadership topics (most on much more cheery topics than this). You can watch all his courses here.